“Like pushing a rock up a hill”
That’s how some trader’s view the current disconnect between the physical market for crude oil and the futures market with speculators pushing futures prices higher while the physical market remains moribund.
Before continuing, it’s important to make the distinction between the physical market for crude and the crude futures market.
- Physical (also known as cash) market prices are determined by the supply and demand for physical crude. Here traders buy oil from the producer and sell it to the refiner, for immediate delivery. Physical buyers and sellers have a direct pulse on the market and may feel immediately when it is well supplied, or not.
- Futures prices, on the other hand, are determined by the supply and demand for crude futures positions. Futures markets provide a means for trading the probability of where crude prices will be at certain points in the future; this allows physical market participants a means by which they can hedge their position and so reduce risk.
The physical crude market tends to show weakness (i.e. too much crude swashing about) when the premium for the best crude grades weakens against the benchmark Brent. One of the most favoured grades in Europe is Azeri Light due to its high quality.
Over the past couple of months physical crude traders have noted the weak premiums for Azeri Light versus Brent as other cargoes, particularly from West Africa compete to supply crude into an already oversupplied Atlantic Basin market.
This apparent disconnect between the futures and the physical market appears eerily similar to mid-2014, just prior to crude prices collapsing. So is the current weakness in the physical crude market a precursor to an imminent weakening in crude futures prices?
Don’t bet on it - at least not based solely on what the physical market is doing.
While the physical fundamentals of supply and demand prevail eventually, the physical market may not always be able to anchor futures prices for days, months or even years.
If commodity futures prices rise too much, perhaps as a result of speculative interest, as there is now, physical supplies will start to be delivered against short positions (a manufacturer looking to hedge its inventory of raw materials might have this kind of position).
In practice, there is never enough physical material readily available to deliver against all the short positions, so rising futures prices can only be offset by buying back crude futures contracts rather than making physical delivery. It takes time to divert and accumulate sufficient physical crude supplies to meet a rise in futures prices driven by speculative rather than fundamental factors.
To get an idea of the extent to which this process is occurring take a to look at the net contract short position for commercial hedgers from the US CFTC weekly Commitments of Traders report. Back in mid-2014 the net short position amongst commercial hedgers (actual producers and users of crude) rose to around 500,000, a record level. This position has since fallen to just over 300,000, but it is still high on an historical basis.
As we know from the months leading up to the oil market crash that began in the middle of 2014, oil futures prices can divorce themselves from the physical fundamentals for a long time.
The price of crude, as with any other commodity is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it. The market’s perception of scarcity in mid-2015 is such that participants in crude futures markets are now willing to pay less than half what they were paying just one year ago.
While theory suggests crude futures markets are anchored to the physical market as contracts expire, in reality the link is a lot more tenuous. As with the myth of Sisyphus the rock will eventually start to roll back. Timing when that will take place, and the catalyst involved, is a whole different matter.